Kant’s Utopian Daydream

I am currently reading a monster of a book. At 802 pages, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves even a voracious reader like myself a little winded. Pinker’s argument is that the world has become less and less violent over time, so much so that we now live in what is the most peaceful period of human history ever.
I know what you’re thinking, but Pinker should not be dismissed as just another Dr. Pangloss preaching that we live “in the best of all possible worlds”. The sheer volume of statistics, and studies ,and stories, Pinker brings together make a strong case that the world has become progressively less violent, though it is a case that does indeed have some holes. It will be best then to deal with his argument in digestible pieces rather than all in one gulp, something I will try to do in a series of installments.

But not in this post, for Pinker has managed to get me sidetracked by drawing my attention to the writings of Immanuel Kant, a philosophical giant who never left his native city of Koenigsberg, but whose imagination stretched out to embrace not just deep questions on the nature of thought and ethics, which I knew, but the history and fate of the species, and indeed the state and future of intelligence in the universe, something I did not.

I can vividly remember, many moons ago now, attending a philosophy class as an undergraduate with the professor trying to explain Kant’s noumenon (thing in itself) vs phenomenon (appearance) with the vague feeling coming over me that my head was about to explode. Those ideas from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his famous guide to ethical behavior, the categorical imperative, which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” were basically all I remembered of old Meister Kant.

Pinker’s fascinating argument, however, made me want to take a second look. Better Angels of our Nature, talks extensively about Kant’s essay On Perpetual Peace, but I became more interested in an essay of Kant’s Pinker mentions, but discusses much less,an essay entitled: Idea of a Universal History from A Cosmopolitical Point of View. (Except for Nietzsche, German philosophers are never easy on the ears.) Kant sets his sights pretty high in this essay where he explores whether, in the seemingly senseless tumult of human history, some pattern or purpose can be seen.

Like in his other works, Kant sets his argument in a series of propositions.  These propositions essentially give us his idea of progress, an 18th century idea that the human species had entered a new and brighter phase of history, an “enlightenment” after the cave- black barbarism of the “dark ages. “

What I found so interesting about Kant’s idea of progress in this essay was the way he seems to be groping towards ideas about human potential, the evolution of mind, the trajectory of human history, and even the possibilities of intelligence in the universe beyond the earth that we can, two centuries later, see much more clearly. These were ideas that could only be put into what we would recognize as a modern context by the theory of evolution, something that would have to wait 64 years into until Darwin published his Origin of Species.

Kant speculates that any creature will move towards the full manifestation of its potential, and that the full potential of all creatures are destined to be reached at least  over the long arc of time.  For human beings, this potential is definitively historical in that every generation builds on the accomplishments of the one before, so that the possibility space of human potential expands with each new person born into the world. (First and Second Propositions) .

These ideas are remarkably similar to Kevin Kelly’s idea of the relationship between human beings and the expanding possibilities opened up by technology found in his book What Technology Wants. For example, Kelly thinks that only a certain level of technological development in musical instruments could have allowed a genius like Mozart to achieve his full potential.  In Kelly’s religiously inspired view, God desires for there to exist the maximum number of perspectives and intelligences, who in turn realize their potential, and therefore constitute a reflection of God’s own divine intelligence.

They also echo the explorations of two fellow bloggers whose work I really love both of whom, from quite different perspectives, attempt to understand the evolution of human consciousness and spirituality in light of the findings of modern science and what it has told us about our place in the universe. These bloggers are John Hyland who writes the blog, John’s Consciousnessand James Cross who writes at Broad Speculations.   Check them out.

To return to Kant, in The Third and Fourth Propositions Kant reflects on how humankind had uniquely been granted almost nothing by nature except raw intelligence, and therefore, had to develop all of its capacities from their own powers of reason.  As mentioned earlier, Kant has no knowledge of the theory of evolution, though what he’s talking about in modern parlance is something we would probably call cultural evolution. And much like evolution in the biological sense, he sees innovation caused by both environmental pressures against which human beings have no natural protection, and competition for scarce resources, especially between human beings themselves. Kant deliciously calls this natural competition human beings’ “unsocial sociability”.  Humans have both a deep need to be social and the need to be separate and provide for themselves. They naturally compete with one another, and if they did not humankind would have found themselves stuck in a kind of effortless paradise reminiscent of the Eloi of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine or the Greek poet, Hesiod’s, Golden Age.  Kant writes:

Without those qualities of an unsocial kind out of which this Antagonism arises which viewed by themselves are certainly not amiable but which everyone must necessarily find in the movements of his own selfish propensities men might have led an Arcadian shepherd life in complete harmony contentment and mutual love but in that case all their talents would have forever remained hidden in their germ. As gentle as the sheep they tended such men would hardly have won for their existence a higher worth than belonged to their domesticated cattle they would not have filled up with their rational nature the void remaining in the Creation in respect of its final End.

Like other social contract theorists Kant thinks humankind’s natural antagonism leads to the creation of a coercive state which eventually gives way to mutually recognized law. The reason for the creation of a coercive state is that man as an animal needs a “master”, but this need for a master can not ultimately be fulfilled by other human beings because these “masters” are other animals as well. The answer is for human beings to place themselves under the rule of Law. For, to be ruled by Law is at one and the same time to be ruled by both an product of human intelligence and something that does not share in their animal nature.

As was the case for Hobbes, states, in Kant’s scheme, exist in a condition analogous to individuals before a the state has come into being. That is, in a condition of extreme and often violent competition. The solution Kant sees to this would be an international institution under which the world’s of representative democracies would voluntarily place themselves under in effect constraining their sovereignty with the limits of international law. An issue he more fully explores in On Perpetual Peace.

Here Kant gets interesting for he is indeed serious when he uses the phrase “cosmopolitical” in the title to his essay. The scope of his speculation expands beyond the earth and humankind to other worlds and different intelligent species. In a fascinating footnote he writes of alien worlds:

The part that has to be played by man is therefore a very artificial one. We do not know how it may be with the inhabitants of other planets or what are the conditions of their nature but if we execute well the commission of Nature we may certainly flatter ourselves to the extent of claiming a not insignificant rank among our neighbours in the universe. It may perhaps be the case that in those other planets every individual completely attains his destination in this life .With us it is otherwise only the species can hope for this.

I find this quote interesting for several reasons. For one, it seems we, or our children, will likely be the very first generation in human history to discover life elsewhere in the Milky Way. And not just bacteria, but fully developed biospheres like our own earth. People often wonder how this will affect humanity’s idea of itself, and it is a helpful reminder that for a long stretch of time after Galileo discovered “other-worlds” orbiting Jupiter, many people actually accepted, and expected , other fully developed sister-earths to exist and eventually be found. It wasn’t until telescopes were improved and long after probes sent out into space that we realized our own solar system was largely dead, and our living planet unique. In fact, the Church’s struggle with Galileo may have been much more about this implication of other earths being out than it was about any contradiction with scripture. If anyone knows of any books looking at Galileo from this angle, please share.

Kant also seems to be suggesting that human beings are collective in their intelligence in a way other species need not be, though I have no idea how to understand this without adopting the position that Kant was somehow blinded by his lack of knowledge regarding evolution- unable as I am to imagine any form of true intelligence that was truly fully formed to begin with and not the product of prior events or social in nature. Unless, that is, if he is thinking about the kinds of imagined intelligence found in immortals.

In his ninth and final proposition Kant seems to sum the whole thing up:

Much more than all this is attained by the idea of Human History viewed as founded upon the assumption of a universal plan in Nature. For this idea gives us a new ground of hope as it opens up to us a consoling view of the future in which the human species is represented in the far distance as having at last worked itself up to a condition in which all the germs implanted in it by Nature may be fully developed and its destination here on earth fulfilled.

In other words, Kant dreams that we will someday arrive in utopia, our potential fulfilled, our worst characteristics reformed.

There are intimations here not just of Kevin Kelly, and my fellow bloggers, but of Hegel, and Teilhard de Chardin, and Condorcet, and Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Wright, and Ray Kurzweil, and now, as I started this post, with Steven Pinker.

But here is where I have a bone to pick with Pinker who uses Kant as a launching point for his own progressive view of human history. For, the assumption found throughout Better Angels of Our Nature is that he (Pinker) and the and other prophet of progress who share his liberalism do real history, have a handle on reality, and are free from dangerous assumptions, while those “other guys”, the prophets of progress that he deems il-liberal, such as Marx or the French Revolutionaries, among others do “utopia”,  imagine a world which never was and can never be, and by even attempting to make it so show themselves to be lunatic, dangerous. But there is something not quite right about this view of ,and so, it is will be to this selective anti-utopianism on the part of Pinker that I will turn next time…    

12 comments on “Kant’s Utopian Daydream

  1. Here’s where I first encountered Kant. I must say this is all way above my head (well, maybe not all of it), but I thought you might be interested in taking a look.



    I read the other day that Ayn Rand hated Kant, or at least his ideas. I’m not up on the “why”. I guess it sort of makes sense, but for some reason I was surprised.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks for the interesting links, Hank. I myself am not a libertarian, but you as one should really check out Pinker’s Better Angels. He makes a pretty good argument that American hegemony is irrelevant to international peace, and that free trade is one of the main vectors driving the decline of violence. His read on how threats such as terrorism, a nuclear Iran, or even climate change, are overblown- though he doesn’t make the connection himself- are as good as any for a scaled back version of the state. Be warned it’s 800 pages.

      If you’d rather listen, here’s Pinker himself laying out his argument in Better Angels:


  2. My main issue with Pinker on this is that he seems to have gone too far in one direction, away from the “blank slate” which he dealt with so well in the book of the same name. He gives insufficient emphasis, for my liking, to how precarious all talk of progress is. Indeed, at times he seems to tacitly support some sort of ethical Lamarckian inheritance. The point he makes about the proportionate decline in violence (even though the balancing of evils which this implies is reprehensible in itself) is also rendered deeply problematic by the fact that we have within our means (or that of the thermonuclear powers) to wipe out all life on earth. We have perhaps stopped killing quite so many in our advanced technological society when compared with hunter-gatherer ancestors (and contemporaries), but in the light of industrialized genocide, mass slaughter, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, do we really want to call that progress?

    • Rick Searle says:

      Andrew and James,

      I am really uncomfortable with Pinker’s “proportionality” as well, Andrew.

      In response to both you and James: Pinker’s case in terms of war is, I think, the weakest because it is the shortest lived. The other areas he looks at, however: slavery, violence against women and children, minority rights, gay rights, animal rights are, in my view, somewhat more compelling as evidence that something very important is going on.

      That said, I have difficulties with Pinker beyond the issues of war and proportionality. I think reading his The Blank Slate will be necessary before I can fully formulate my ideas, however, because my guess is that Blank Slate informs some of his conclusions or at least his perspective in Better Angels.

      Hope both of you will give me your critical feedback when I post that.


  3. James Cross says:

    Thanks for the link to my site.

    I have been trying to reconcile evolutionary theory with the idea of some sort of progression in human behavior and culture.

    Of course, the idea of progression was widespread a century or so ago with Spenser and even Darwin to a degree. Elements of it persisted into the 20th century with Teilhard de Chardin. Although it seems true that evolution has caused the progression from simpler to more complex organism, Stephen Gould argues this is largely an illusion. In Full House, Gould explains that there is no real progression but there are just random mutations with some leading to more complexity and some to less. So, when we look at wide diversity of organism in existence today after several billion years of evolution, we now sees the full range of organisms.

    Yet it is clear that progression in some sense does occur in evolution. Some mutations, for example, are not reversible. Even Gould acknowledges that once an organism adopts, for example, the body plan of a reptile then hundred of options are closed. The first bilateria may have come from a random mutation but once the body plan of the bilateria came into existence it then became possible to have an ever increasing amount of neural matter even though the initial neural matter of the bilateria may have provided only slight or perhaps no advantages over the neurological systems of other organisms.

    When humans initially began to develop the capabilities for creating culture, quite probably the initial advantages were small. The appearance of the advanced abilities for language, art, and symbolic expression in some individuals would carry little advantage to humans as a whole unless there was a critical mass of humans with like ability. You can’t have culture without sharing it with others. So human evolution progressed slowly for one or two million years. During this time, various portions of the pre-human population may have made abortive efforts at creating a cultural capacity only to have the direction thwarted by the lack of a critical mass of like humans. By 200 or 300 thousand years ago, I imagine we most likely like super intelligent wolves but finally at the threshold of achieving that critical mass. The spread of the genetic capabilities for culture was somewhat like a snow ball becoming larger and larger as it rolls down the hill. It must have involved selection for intelligence, language ability, and also for reduced aggression (or at least sublimated aggression).

    The question for the future is to what extent these same selection pressures will continue. I think these pressures will continue but I wouldn’t be willing to go out on the limb with Pinker. A couple of decades of relative peace (if the last couple of decades could even be described in this way) could be blown away in a week or two with an outbreak of nuclear war. And who knows what sort of conflicts could arise as a result of climate change or the inevitable falling of oil production. There are still a great many economic drivers that could create future conflict. While our genetic direction may be towards less aggression, our rational side still causes us to take calculated risks and some of those calculations lead us to war.

  4. […] they do not possess strong security guarantees from one of the great powers. Pinker believes that Kant’s democratic peace theory (that democracies tied together by links of trade and international organization do not fight one […]

  5. An English lover says:

    Hi, I found this extreely helpful for my English assignment, but i was alo wondering if that Picture of the guy siting on a rock ignoring the nature around him was by percy Shelley. As im sure i remember it from my study of Mary Shelleys Frankenstein and a brief glimpse into Romanticism. Anyway if you could tell exacly who the painting was by and what it was called would be very helpful as it would be prefect fro my visual representation on Dystopias and Utopias.

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